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INTRODUCTION

The Quran is a very unique book in terms of its composition. Its 114 chapters (or Surahs in
Arabic) are not arranged chronologically or thematically. Even within the individual chapters,
numerous topics can be covered with sudden switches from one topic to another and then back
again.

This unique structure at face value may appear to be disjointed. However, modern research has
discovered a sophisticated structural coherence in the Quran known as ring composition.

A. Theory of Ring Composition

Ring composition has been explained by Mary Douglas in her book Thinking in Circles:
An Essay on Ring Composition. In ring compositions there must be a correspondence between
the beginning and the end. It is structured as a sort of circle, or mirror image. The central
meaning of the text is placed at its center. The second half mirrors the first half, in reverse order
e.g., A, B, C, D, C, B, A.

The correspondence usually involves the repetition of a striking or evident word or


phrase, and there must be a clear thematic connection between the two sections. The
correspondence serves to complete the circle and provide closure. Also, the internal sections
within the ring must correspond to each other.

To put it in simple terms; ring composition is the equivalent of putting a mirror in the
middle what is mentioned in the first half will be reflected in the second half.

B. The Circumstances of the Qurans Revelation

Before getting into the ring composition of the Quran, its worth discussing the background and
circumstances of the Qurans revelation:

Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, could not read or write. The Quran itself confirms
this:

Those who follow the Messenger, the unlettered prophet, whom they find written in what
they have of the Torah and the Gospel [Chapter 7, verse 157]
Throughout his life, prior to Prophethood, Muhammad did not have a reputation for poetry. In
fact we know from history that at a personal level he disliked it and wasnt a skilled poet. There
are instances where he attempted to relate some poetry and would jumble the words up1:

Qatadah narrated, Aisha was asked: Did the Prophet, may the peace and blessings of Allah
be upon him, use to relate anything from poetry? She said: It was most detestable thing to
him except that (at times) he used to relate a verse from the person of BanuQays and he
jumbled it up. Abu Bakr told him it was not like that. So the Prophet of Allah said, By
Allah I am not a poet and neither is it appropriate for me.

The Quran was originally delivered to its first audience in the form of speech through recitation.
Remarkably the Quran did not have the opportunity for an editorial process, as many verses
were revealed on the spot as a response to unexpected questions and challenges that were
brought forward to Prophet Muhammad from both believers and non-believers.

The 6,236 verses that make up the Quran were revealed gradually over a period of 23 years. It
did not go through multiple revisions as it was revealed:

And those who disbelieve say, Why was the Quran not revealed to him all at once? Thus
[it is] that We may strengthen thereby your heart. And We have spaced it distinctly.
[Chapter 25, verse 32]

Have a think about the typical way in which books are written. Most follow a pattern of a
beginning, middle and end. Most people would assume that the Quran was revealed
chronologically, starting with its first chapter and ending with its final chapter. However, the
Quran isnt like most books. You may be surprised to learn that the 6,236 verses that make up
the Quran were not revealed sequentially in order. Chapter 1 was not followed by chapters 2, 3,
4 (and so on) as one would write a conventional book. Rather, chapter 96 was followed by
chapter 68, which was followed by chapter 73 (and so on). Moreover, a few of the chapters of the
Quran are quite large in size, with hundreds of verses. They were not revealed all at once, some
chapters were revealed over a span of many years, with the revelation of their verses being
interspaced with the revelation of verses from other chapters.

In light of these circumstances, wouldnt you expect the structure of the Quran to be jumbled? It
would be difficult to plan an ordered structure in advance, when verses are being revealed in
such an apparently random fashion. What we find against all odds however, is that the Quran
contains the sophisticated structure of ring composition.

C. The Ring Composition of the Quran

Surah al-Baqarah, which we are going to use as a case study in this article, happens to be the
longest chapter of the Quran and was revealed over a span of over nine years. Surah Al-Baqarah
consists of 286 verses and can be divided into nine main sections based on theme/topic (verse
numbers in parenthesis):

1Tafseer at Thabari also see tafsir Abdul ar Razak 3/86 Narration no 2496 under Quran 36:69
1. Faith vs. unbelief (1 20)
2. Allahs creation and knowledge (21 39)
3. Deliverance of Law to Children of Israel (40 103)
4. Abraham was tested (104 141)
5. Kaba is the new qibla (142 152)
6. Muslims will be tested (153 177)
7. Deliverance of Law to Muslims (178 253)
8. Allahs creation and knowledge (254 284)
9. Faith vs. unbelief (285 286)

Re-arranging this list to fit into a ring composition:

A Faith vs. unbelief (1 20

B Allahs creation and knowledge (21 39)

C Deliverance of Law to Children of Israel (40 103)

D Abraham was tested (104 141)

E Kaba is the new qibla (142 152)

D Muslims will be tested (153 177)

C Deliverance of Law to Muslims (178 253)

B Allahs creation and knowledge (254 284)

A Faith vs. unbelief (285 286).

The coherence in the form of a ring composition is best illustrated in the diagram below (please
click on picture to enlarge)2

2Original diagram taken from article at Islam 21c, The Coherence of al-Baqarah
If we examine the 9 sections we find that they contain sub-ring compositions. So what we have is
rings within rings (please click on pictures to enlarge)3:

3Surat al-Baqarah A Structural Analysis Raymond Farrin 2010


Here is a table showing parallels between the corresponding sections (the correspondences here
are indicated horizontally):
A noteworthy point is that the middle of Surah Al-Baqarah, the 143rd verse, mentions an
important turning point for the Muslims:

Thus We have appointed you a middle nation, that ye may be witnesses against mankind,
and that the messenger may be a witness against you. And We appointed the qiblah which
ye formerly observed only that We might know him who followed the messenger, from him
who turned on his heels. In truth it was a hard (test) save for those whom Allah guided. But
it was not Allahs purpose that your faith should be in vain, for Allah is Full of Pity,
Merciful toward mankind. [Chapter 2, verse 143]

This turning point was the change in qiblah, the direction of the daily prayers, from Jerusalem to
Makkah. This represented a big test for the believers. We find the mention of this important
turning point in exactly the middle of the chapter. Moreover this verse even contains the word
middle!

Finally, its worth paying special attention to a particular verse of Surah al-Baqarah, the 255th
verse known as Ayat al-Kursi. This verse is considered the most excellent verse of the Quran,
according to Prophet Muhammad. Its memorization is highly encouraged, and it just so happens
that it too exhibits a ring composition:
Notice that the middle of Ayat al-Kursi mentions before and after which could be yet another
allusion to the mirroring of ring composition.

Its worth highlighting that not only does Ayat al-Kursi contain its own ring composition, but it is
also positioned as a sub ring within two larger rings a concentric ring composition:
Raymond K Farrin, author of Surat al-Baqarah A Structural Analysis, concludes on Surah al-
Baqarahs ring composition:

Indeed this sura exhibits marvelous justness of design. It is precisely and tightly arranged,
as we have seen, according to the principles of ring composition; even the section lengths fit
perfectly in the overall scheme. Moreover, the precise structure serves as a guide, pointing
to key themes in the sura. These occur, according to the logic of the pattern, at the centers
of individual rings and, particularly, at the center of the whole sura. At the center of the
sura, again, one finds instructions to face Mecca this being a test of faith; identification
of the Muslims as a new, middle community; and the message that all people, regardless of
their qibla or spiritual orientation, should race to do good and God will bring them
together.

This precision in the arrangement of the verses is in fact astonishing when we consider the
timing of the revelation of the verses of the Quran. As Dr Abdullah Draz, Professor of Islamic
Studies, eloquently puts it:

When we consider carefully the timing of the revelation of the Quranic passages and
surahs [chapters] and their arrangement, we are profoundly astonished. We almost belie
what we see and hear. We then begin to ask ourselves for an explanation of this highly
improbable phenomenon: is it not true that this new passage of revelation has just been
heard as new, addressing a particular event which is its only concern? Yet it sounds as
though it is neither new nor separate from the rest. It seems as if it has been, along with the
rest of the Quran, perfectly impressed on this mans mind long before he has recited it to
us When we consider such detailed instructions on the arrangement of passages and
surahs we are bound to conclude that there is a complete and detailed plan assigning the
position of each passage before they are all revealed. Indeed the arrangement is made
before the reasons leading to the revelation of any passage occur, and even before the start
of the preliminary causes of such events Such are the plain facts about the arrangement
of the Quran as it was revealed in separate verses, passages and surahs over a period of 23
years. What does that tell us about its source? 4

To better understand DrDrazs point, lets consider the example of constructing a


building. Imagine two people being supplied with materials and being tasked with building a
house. The first person is experienced; they know that in order to design a well-constructed
house, they need to go about the task in an organized fashion. They first wait until all of the
materials, such as the bricks, cement, wood and nails, have been supplied. Then they would
review the materials at their disposal, assessing their quantities, sizes and shapes so that they can
determine how they will best fit together. Now that they have a complete picture of the
constituent parts of the house, only then do they draw up a design plan. Making a design plan
cannot precede the supply and assessment of the materials because the plan depends upon the
materials available. Such an approach stands a good chance of resulting in a well-constructed
house.

The second person is inexperienced and they go about building the house in a
disorganized fashion. Rather than waiting until they receive all of the materials and then drawing
up a design plan, they instead decide to build a house without complete knowledge of its
constituent parts, constructing it piecemeal, adding to it bit by bit, as and when they receive the
individual materials. What are the chances that this approach will result in a well-constructed
house like that of the organized person? Unlike the organized approach where each part is placed
in its best possible position, instead you have a situation where it seems each part is placed
arbitrarily, depending on the order in which they were received. In such circumstances you
would most likely end up with a very poorly designed house, liable to collapse at any time. It is
highly unlikely, perhaps even impossible, that this disorganized approach would end up with the
same stunningly designed house that the organized person constructed.

Yet this is exactly what we find with the structure of the Quran. The builder in our
example is Muhammad. The house that he began to build since its first bricks were given to him
is the Quran. Ever since he received its early verses, he started to arrange its parts. The rooms
and bricks in our construction example are the chapters and verses of the Quran. He could never
have a design plan in place for the Quran because the revelation of many of its verses depended
on events that were out of his control, such as the social developments and religious and worldly
challenges that he faced throughout his 23 years of Prophethood. For example, believers would
come up to him and question him on a particular matter, or his enemies would challenge him.

4Dr Abdullah Drazs. The al-Quran an Eternal Challenge p.126 -127


Immediately the responses in the form of revelation would descend on him, addressing the
specific situation that he was facing.

D. Benefits of Ring Composition

Ring composition has great exegetical application. For a ring structure not only holds the
text together, but also gives focus to the important words and themes. By means of concentric
patterning, ring composition calls attention to the center we are drawn to look here for the
essential message. As Mary Douglas notes concisely, The meaning is in the middle.5

It also serves as an aid in memorization, especially useful given the length of Surah al-
Baqarah. In his study of ancient poetry, Cedric Whitman found that ring composition
simultaneously performed both aesthetic and mnemonic functions. It aids memorization by
permitting the oral poet to easily recall the basic formulae of the composition during
performances 6.

E. Ring Composition in other Literature

Some critics may point out that texts prior to the Quran had this literary style and
therefore we cannot use this as evidence of the Qurans divine origin. They put forward
examples from Mary Douglas book Thinking in Circles: An Essay on Ring Composition
which states that ring compositions are found throughout ancient Eastern Mediterranean
literature (like Homers Iliad) as well as the Bible.

Comparing the Qurans structure to that of other texts is like comparing night and day for the
following reasons:

1. Prophet Muhammad could not read or write, so its a lot more difficult to plan
such a structure when all you have to go on is memory (the Quran was
revealed orally of course)
2. .Prophet Muhammad was not a poet nor did he have any literary reputation,
and yet the Quran has this remarkable structure. How can a person with little
to no experience or skill in poetry/literature achieve such sophistication?
3. The verses of the Quran were not revealed in sequential order like with
conventional texts. Surah al-Baqarah, the example covered in this article, was
revealed over a period of many years with its verses interspaced with the
revelation of verses from other chapters. Unlike conventional texts this makes
implementing such a structure much more difficult
4. Many verses of the Quran are linked to questions and events that occurred
unexpectedly, so unless a person can predict the future, how could a human
being plan the verses ahead of time when they were not in his control? Other
texts such as the Bible were written by multiple authors long after Moses and
5Marry Douglas. Thinking in Circle 16, p. 35

6 Marry Douglas. Thinking in Circle 16, p. 35


Jesus (peace be upon them) which would make planning such a structure much
easier.
5. The Quran did not undergo any editorial process, Prophet Muhammad would
fix the positions of the new verses as soon as they were revealed to him. With
each new verse, again which were tied to external questions and events that
were outside of his control, he would not go off and review what had been
previously revealed and see where he can fit them in order to maintain this ring
structure. So spontaneous revelation was immediately followed by the
placement of the verse into the Quran, and once placed it was fixed with no
opportunity for later editing. Other texts such as the Bible show evidence of
multiple authors and several stages of editing, again making is much easier to
achieve such a structure.

In summary, it is the unique circumstances of the revelation of the Quran that make its ring
structure a strong argument for its divine origin.
CONCLUSION

How is it possible that the Quran exhibits such a remarkably harmonious structure when its
verses were not revealed sequentially, but in random pieces over a span of 23 years, especially
given that many of the 6,236 verses of the Quran are tied to particular historical events? Were a
human being to compose a book in such a manner then its structure would undoubtedly be in
disorder.

Moreover when each new verse was revealed it was immediately put into its position within its
respective chapter. This position was fixed. There was no opportunity for modification or re-
arrangement. How could Muhammad have devised such an intricate plan when he could not
predict the events that would dictate the revelation of the verses? Such an arrangement would
have to be planned in advance, but this was not possible due to these events being out of his
control. We must conclude that the author of the Quran knew the future, which is a quality of
the divine. This represents compelling evidence that his inspiration for the Quran was God
Almighty, as the Quran itself states:

Your Companion is neither astray nor being misled. Nor does he say (aught) of (his own)
desire. It is no less than inspiration sent down to him. He was taught by one mighty in
Power. [Chapter 53, verses 2-5]
References

1 Tafsir at-Tabari, also see Tafsir Abdul Razzaq 3/86 Narration under Quran

2 Original diagram taken from article at Islam21c, The Coherence of al-Baqarah.

3 Surat al-Baqarah A Structural Analysis, Raymond Farrin, 2010.

4 Dr Abdullah Draz, The Quran An Eternal Challenge,

5 Mary Douglas, Thinking in Circles 16

6 Cedric M. Whitman. Homer and the Heroic Tradition. Cambridge: Harvard UP,